The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Galatians 5:16-24
In Christ Jesus, who saved us and set us free to live for Him instead of for the destructive desires of our own flesh, dear fellow redeemed:
When we see people throw away great wealth or great opportunities or great abilities, it’s hard for us to understand it. So maybe an elite athlete is dismissed from the team because of drug addiction. A gifted actor loses prime roles because of an abrasive personality. A brilliant student wiles away his days playing video games. A rich kid gets caught stealing. Things like these don’t make sense to us. We think that if we had what they did, we wouldn’t waste it.
But it’s much easier to be an “armchair quarterback” than an actual one. It’s easy to say what we would do different when we haven’t faced the things they have. As the account of the Good Samaritan taught us last week, when we see others experiencing difficulties, we should extend charity to them. We have room for charity toward others because we need their charity too.
If you want to talk about people who haven’t maximized their opportunities or appreciated their blessings, aren’t we at the top of that list? Let’s consider what good things we have that so few in the world even know about. We know that the God who created all things loves us. He is not angry with us because of our sins. He does not plot our punishment for our misdeeds. He sent His only Son to be our holy Substitute, to keep the Law perfectly for us, and to die in payment for our sins.
We know that Jesus rose again in victory over death. We know that the Holy Spirit works powerfully through the Word and Sacraments to comfort and heal and strengthen us. We know we are righteous in God’s sight by faith in Jesus. We know He does not count our sins against us. We know that He works all things in our life—even the bad things—for good. We know that He guards and keeps us every moment of every day and will safely bring our souls to heaven when we die.
Most people in the world, including many who consider themselves religious, do not know God’s love. They do not know He forgives them in Christ. They live in constant fear of His judgment. But you are free from those doubts and worries. You are free from the condemnation of the Law. You are free from the pressure of trying to appease God by your own works. You are free from the idea that how you live your life does not matter since you could never be good enough for God anyway. Your life does matter; Jesus gave up His life to save yours.
So what should you do with your life? How should you use the freedom you have in Christ? Some who have heard the Gospel of free forgiveness think that this gives them freedom to keep on sinning. “As long as I believe my sins are forgiven,” they think, “then I can just go on doing what I want.” But in today’s text St. Paul has some cold water to throw on that idea. He writes that to use our freedom for sin will lead us back into spiritual slavery. Just because we once believed in Jesus does not mean we will always believe in Jesus. Saving faith can be lost.
Paul includes a long list of “the works of the flesh.” Many of the things he lists are considered acceptable in our modern society. Sex outside of marriage is okay, says the world, as long as it is consensual. Hoarding money and goods is fine as long as it is done legally. Anger and hatred are justified as long as the target is really terrible. Drunkenness and wild parties are okay as long as no one gets hurt. But no matter how we try to explain these sins away or make them acceptable to our conscience, they are offensive to God. Paul does not mince words, “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
So what hope do we have? We are guilty of committing many of these sins. But notice that Paul does not say, “those who have done such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” If that were the case, no one would be going to heaven. All of us have sinned. What Paul writes is, “those who do such things.” He is referring to those who willingly choose to sin and continue in it. They know what they are doing is contrary to God’s Word, and they decide to go ahead with it anyway.
None of us is without sin, and we cannot keep ourselves from ever sinning. But we can stay on the lookout for temptations and pray for God’s help to avoid sin. When we do fall into sin, God calls us to humble ourselves, to give up trying to justify our sins, and repent. But then He does not leave us under the condemnation of the holy Law. He leads us through the Gospel to Jesus’ cross and empty tomb where we are assured that our sins are all forgiven.
Through the powerful Gospel, the Holy Spirit lifts the burden of our sins off us. We don’t have to carry anymore what Jesus carried to the cross and paid for with His own blood. Now we are free. We are not weighed down anymore by the chains of sin and death and the crushing weight of the Law.
Those who carry an overwhelming load, whether from work or other responsibilities or committing to too many activities, don’t feel free to help others in need. “I’m the one who needs help!” they think. In the same way, until the burden of our sin is removed, our focus remains on ourselves. Our energy is spent in piling up more sins, in trying to keep our past sins buried, or in doing whatever we can to quiet our guilty conscience. But when our spiritual burden is removed from us through the Gospel, we are free to focus on others. Now we forgiven sinners are ready to bear fruit.
Paul contrasts “the works of the flesh” done out of love for ourselves with “the fruit of the Spirit” done out of love for God and neighbor. We believers find the power and motivation to produce this fruit by hearing Jesus’ Word and partaking of the Sacraments He instituted. “I am the vine; you are the branches,” He says, “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (Joh. 15:5).
As long as we are connected to Him by faith, He promises to accomplish great things through us. He sends the Holy Spirit to produce in us “love” toward those around us, “joy” in our callings, “peace” from knowing His love, “patience” when difficulties come, “kindness” toward the hurting, “goodness” to the needy, “faithfulness” like the grateful Samaritan, “gentleness” toward oppressors and the oppressed, and “self-control” no matter the situation.
“The fruit of the Spirit” is wonderful fruit! It is fruit that brings blessings to our lives and the lives of those we meet. Paul writes that “there is no law” against these blessings. God wants us to have them. He wants us to drink deeply from the fountain of His Word where the Holy Spirit is always at work. And we must do this.
We must to do this because “the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other.” Our sinful nature and the Holy Spirit do not want the same thing. Our sinful nature wants to lead us along the path of self-centeredness and self-indulgence. This path heads directly toward hell. The Holy Spirit, on the other hand, wants us to have the good things of God: righteousness, comfort, peace, forgiveness, salvation, life. These gifts of Jesus keep us on the path toward heaven.
One way may look and feel like freedom, but fleshly freedom is slavery for the soul. The other way may seem like restriction and regulation, but suppression of our fleshly desires now is our only hope for life everlasting. Nobody has ever experienced true freedom by embracing the things of this world. If you remember the story of Pinocchio, the rowdy boys thought they had everything they could want on “Pleasure Island,” but their bad behavior turned them into braying beasts locked in tiny cages.
True freedom is found in Jesus alone. It is a freedom from sin, not a freedom to sin. We are Free to Be Fruitful. We are free to move beyond the failures of our past. We are free to live God-pleasing lives that benefit our neighbors. We are free to pursue noble things that let us sleep well at night. We are free to spend ourselves in service to Him who loves us with an undying love.
This freedom is yours not because of anything you did. It is because of what Jesus did for you. He was arrested, bound, and nailed to a cross so you would be free. He offered His holy life for your sinful one. He suffered in innocence so you would be spared of your guilt. Your Baptism joined you to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection (Rom. 6:4). It connected your life to His. It grafted you into the living Vine.
The baptized who remain in Him by faith are no longer ruled by the flesh. Paul writes that “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” So while you may have lost some battles to the flesh, Jesus has won the war. He has redeemed you from your sins and still grants you the blessing and the freedom to bear His fruit.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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The Holy Nativity of Our Lord – Pr. Faugstad Exordium and Sermon
Is it “Merry Christmas!” or “Happy Holidays!” We prefer “Merry Christmas” because Christ is “the reason for the season.” If there is no birth at Bethlehem to celebrate, then we’re left with a season of bright lights, glittering decorations, gift giving, and Santa Claus—but no Savior. On the other hand, “Happy Holidays” is not totally objectionable. “Holidays” comes from “Holy days,” and the birth of the Christ-Child is a holy—a sacred—event.
While we can see the cultural tug-of-war between these two greetings, there seems to be no argument about the words “merry” and “happy.” One means just about the same as the other. We want people to have merriment and happiness. But as nice as this is, our wish cannot make it happen.
This is a time of year that not everyone feels so cheerful. Some feel very alone with no one who seems to understand or care for them. For others the season is a reminder of happier times past and of loved ones no longer present. As much as they might appreciate the sentiment of a “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays,” the warm feelings escape them.
You may be among those this morning who do not feel “merry.” But you can still rejoice, even in your sorrows and troubles. You can rejoice because the Savior was born into the world today, the One who would defeat the devil, pay your debt of sin, and destroy your death. Jesus the Christ came to do this for you. He came to win your salvation, so that you would enjoy everlasting merriment and happiness with Him in heaven. Let us therefore rejoice in these glad tidings by singing our festival hymn, “Rejoice, Rejoice This Happy Morn!” (#142):
Rejoice, rejoice this happy morn!
A Savior unto us is born,
The Christ, the Lord of glory.
His lowly birth in Bethlehem
The angels from on high proclaim
And sing redemption’s story.
God’s great favor;
Bless Him ever
Give Him praise and adoration!
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Sermon text: St. John 1:1-14
In Christ Jesus, God incarnate, eternally begotten and born in time, dear fellow redeemed:
Today is the birthday of Jesus. But we celebrate it differently than the way we celebrate the birthdays of friends and relatives. And that is as it should be. The birth of the Christ-Child should stand out. We would not do the day justice if we sang a quick round of the “Happy Birthday” song to Jesus before cutting into some festive birthday cake. Only the best will do for this occasion. So we bring out our most elaborate decorations. We give special gifts. We join the angels in singing “Glory to God in the highest!” We resolve to live holier lives to honor His name.
But even our best efforts fall short. No collection of beautiful things, no amount of riches, no high-sounding praise, and no good deeds are equal to what is declared in today’s text: “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Who is “the Word”? “The Word” is the Son of God, begotten of the Father from eternity. He was with the Father in the beginning when God said, “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:3). As all creation was spoken into existence, the Son—the Word—was at work. “All things were made through Him, and without Him was not any thing made that was made.” From the plants to the bugs to the birds to the fish to the cattle to humankind, all living things were given life through the Son.
But then death entered the world. Man and woman did not think they could really live unless they ate from the forbidden tree. They found that just the opposite was true. The LORD came and told the man, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19). Now their flesh would die, and their children would die, and their children’s children and all the generations after them would die. The prophet Isaiah described the terrible outcome of Adam and Eve’s sin: “All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the LORD blows on it; surely the people are grass” (40:6-7).
And yet we wonder: Are we really so weak? Are we no more than blades of grass in this life? But look at everything we have accomplished! Look at our great cities! Look at our ingenuity and creativity! Look at how we have subdued the wild things of the earth! It is true that humans are capable of many things. But there is one thing they have not and never could master. They cannot stand against death.
If you come down with pneumonia or some kind of infection, you are given an antibiotic to combat the sickness. This medicine must be introduced into your body, so that you can get better. The entire human race needed something like this. We needed an antidote for the poison of sin which had worked its way all through us. What could counteract it? Isaiah continues, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (v. 8). The Word stands forever. The Word is life.
And “when the fullness of time had come” (Gal. 4:4), “the Word became flesh.” The Word who gave life to all things at creation now entered His creation in the most surprising and mysterious way—He bound human flesh to Himself. He did this by entering the small confines of a virgin’s womb as a human embryo. A short time later, His heart began to beat. His arms and legs formed. His brain developed. Mary was obviously “with child,” but no one—not even Mary—fully grasped who this Child was.
His birth was greeted with joy as births so often are. We love to see new life enter the world. There is nothing as precious as a tiny, wide-eyed baby. But as Mary and Joseph and the shepherds looked down at Jesus and held Him in their arms, they were not simply looking at a cute newborn. They were staring into the eyes of God. They were holding the One who held up all things. They gently cradled Him who would save them from eternal destruction. They seemed to be superior in strength to this Infant. But their strength was only temporary. Their flesh would give out in time.
This is why “the Word became flesh.” God became man to save humankind from its certain fate. He brought His life-giving power into the world of death. He came to dispel the darkness of sin by His life of perfect righteousness and by His innocent suffering and death. He was the antidote for the poison of sin. “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
So Life entered the world on Christmas, but John writes that “He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, yet the world did not know Him.” What a tragedy! Life had come for the dying, but they did not see what was before them. They pushed Him away. They did not want Him. This still happens. The Savior came for all, but so many think they do not need Him. They do not believe their condition is that serious. They might celebrate Christmas but not with any real concern about their sin or their Savior.
But there are some who welcome Christ’s coming in the right way. They approach Christmas with humility. They understand how corrupt the world is and their own heart. They celebrate Jesus’ birth, because they know His birth means salvation.
Your birthday without Jesus’ birthday would mean you are still in your sins. Your birthday is a special day, but you needed to be born again. Physical life in this world is only temporary; human flesh only lasts so long. You needed the spiritual life that Jesus obtained through His holy birth and life, His death, and resurrection. But none can conceive spiritual life in themselves. The dead cannot bring themselves to life. God must do this, and He does it through the Word.
John writes, “But to all who did receive Him, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” Believers in Jesus, those whose hearts are filled with new life and hope, were given this spiritual life not through their own striving and efforts. They were born “of God.” He chose them. He sent His Son for them, to save them. His holy life counts as their holy life. His death for sin counts as their death for sin.
Everything that Jesus accomplished during His time on earth is given to us now through His Word. Many of you received these blessings just after your birth by the power of the Word in baptism. This is when God filled you with life and claimed you as His child. Others came to faith later in life by the same powerful Word. Whenever it happened, the injection of the Gospel into your heart is when you really started to live. This is when the Lord of life entered your dying flesh to give you the hope of eternal life.
It was for your salvation that “the Word became flesh.” This is why God’s Son took on flesh and was born of the virgin Mary. Our humble decorations cannot properly adorn this day, our gifts cannot do it justice, our hymns of praise cannot fully express it, our best efforts cannot equal it. And yet, we do and give what we can in thankfulness to our Savior.
He is pleased with our lowly praises because He is pleased with us. He looks with favor upon us like a loving parent looks upon his dear child. He will not forget His child. He will continue to feed and nourish us with the food of life, with the nourishment of the Word, until we are finally transferred from here, from this life of trouble and sorrow, into His glorious kingdom of light.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(painting is “Adoration of the Shepherds” by Gerard van Honthorst, 1592-1656)